‘Rogue Agent’: A Seductive Con Man Breaks Hearts and Robs Them Blind
It’s one of the oldest forms of heartbreak. Just when you think you know a person, they turn out to be someone else. But the case of Robert Freegard takes it to a diabolically unnerving extreme. “Rogue Agent” tells the story of how Freegard conned multiple victims over the years, making them believe he was an MI5 agent, when in reality he was nothing more than a walking delusion. Directors Declan Lawn and Adam Patterson do more with the material than simply spin another true crime tale. With James Norton, who also produces oozing friendly charisma, they make it about why we’re willing to believe suspenseful claims. We yearn for something more exciting in our dull, everyday lives. Freegard seemed to offer his victims liberation. “It was a long journey and unique for me in that it was my first time as a producer as well,” Norton tells Entertainment Voice. “I first read this story in a great article that came out in 2006 and I read it about six years ago. I’ve been kind of sitting with this guy for six years. I had to learn about his whole world while preparing, including all the various characters and victims.”
The film itself begins deceiving us, opening with a serious title card about how in the early 1990s, the IRA was waging a bombing campaign in England. It’s 1993 and we meet Robert Freegard (Norton) as he seems to be an MI5 operative recruiting college students so they can become agents or informers. Nine years later, he’s a luxury car salesman in London who catches the eye of Alice Archer (Gemma Arterton), a lawyer who passes by his office every day. He’s both bold and respectful, inviting her to dinner and charming her with his attentive, well-groomed ways. Soon enough, Alice is in love with Robert. But when she notices his phone ringing with the name Sophie as the caller, she has a private investigator do some digging. Sure enough, Robert’s history draws a blank. Who is this man? Cornered, he confesses he’s a spy. It’s a convenient way to explain his absences, during which he’s with another woman, the younger Sophie (Marisa Abela), who is convinced Robert is training her to become a field agent. He also finds reasons to make these women provide him with money, whether it’s Alice opening a luxury car leasing business with him, or Sophie being pressured into demanding her inheritance from her baffled parents.
“Freegard realizes he has this strange power, this ability to be a kind of ‘bad therapist’ who can work out what people want and feel what they’re lacking, and then use it against them,” says Norton, best known for roles in grand productions like “War and Peace” who taps into his dark side here. “Everyone has a story they want to be told and he knew how to figure that out. He loved it. He became addicted to it.” Lawn and Patterson evoke that kind of twisted reverie a seducer can bring to a victim in the first act of the film, which is staged like a romance. The first time Alice meets Robert, the sexual tension is palpable and he’s so kind yet attractive. Red lights signal when she introduces him to her parents and they look worried at his sudden announcement that Alice will go into the car rental business, despite her successful law practice. “This all became his job, it became his income. The control became an addiction. I can’t claim to have worked out the enigma that is Robert Freegard but it’s been six years of trying,” says Norton. “Freegard is basically a brilliant actor. Had he applied his skills to acting or therapy, he might have won an Oscar or helped a lot of people be healthy (laughs).”
As Alice probes deeper into Robert, the suspense of “Rogue Agent” takes on a perverse, almost nightmarish quality because Robert continues operating so amorally. There’s never a hint of remorse or the sensation he’s watching over his shoulder. He does what he does because it brings out results, sex and mutual ego-puffing. He enjoys being seen as a spy while the women he seduces get charged by the excitement of his ludicrous job offers. Eventually it’s all rather tragic and sad. Robert knows exactly who to target, like Jenny (Sarah Goldberg), an American living alone, on antidepressants, who like everyone else, is charmed by Robert’s ability to make you feel like the most important person in the room. The dark side begins to appear when Robert begins leaving a trail of destruction in his wake. Alice finds large funds taken out of their business account and is soon being reprimanded at work for looking disheveled and distracted. Sophie is disconnected from her parents who live in anguish over her whereabouts.
“I really loved working with Gemma and Marisa,” says Norton. “Gem was an absolute pro. We wanted that first third of the movie to feel like a love story, almost like a rom-com and Gem is easy to fall in love with on screen. She’s so lovely. And we wanted that relationship to feel different from the other ones because it’s meant to be the closest these characters really were ever to being in love. Maybe they really had been in love. The real person Alice is based on apparently did have a real, ferocious relationship with Freegard so we wanted to tap into that.” Arterton, a great British actor known stateside mostly for roles in action films like “Clash of the Titans,” brings a great sense of vulnerability to a character who is a strong, successful woman who understandably seeks good companionship, but isn’t naïve enough to not sense when something is off. Marisa Abela, who plays a self-assured heiress in HBO’s “Industry,” is nearly unrecognizable as the younger victim of Robert’s, who seems powerless before his demands and claims. He knows he can treat her like a child whereas with Alice, he treads more cautiously.
It’s that kind of psychological insight that gives “Rogue Agent” a more engaging pace and riveting tone than the average huckster thriller. The suspense is based purely on the astounding reflection that someone can go this far in order to both steal and coerce lives, with little consideration for the fallout. As Alice initiates moves with authorities to track him down, Freegard stays oblivious to the possibility he might be caught. Freegard is more frightening than most movie super villains because he’s not an invention. Spoiler alert, in 2009 Freegard was released from prison and Norton suspects, has been keeping track of this movie. “We have had a couple of dubious phone calls from people who claim to be Freegard’s friends,” says Norton. “We definitely think one of them could have been Freegard. If you’re a narcissist and you’re reading in the trades, in the newspapers, that there’s a film being made about you, you’re probably going to try and ingratiate yourself to the movie. So, there’ve been a couple of dubious phone calls where our other producers keep wondering, ‘was that Freegard?’”
“Rogue Agent” releases Aug. 12 on Apple TV+ and in select theaters.